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Agitating for housing, not against tech, is the solution to San Francisco’s housing crisis

Posted by tobymuresianu on Apr 8, 2014 in Politics, Tech, Thoughts, Travel

Housing prices in San Francisco are insane, and it’s become a large problem. Yet the root cause is that San Francisco is great, and one of the side effects is that people want to move there. As problems for cities go, this is a good one to have.

Where it gets hairy, though, is that while 75,000 people have moved in in the last 10 years, only 17,000 new housing units have been built in the same time. Supply and demand being a phenomenon not unique to San Francisco, the result has been skyrocketing rents, and longtime residents (longtime in San Francisco meaning more than 3 years) getting displaced.

To put it in perspective; when I lived in the city as a semi-professional comedian and app developer (or if you prefer to say it, marginally employed person) in 2009, I paid $800/month for a room at 17th and Dolores that, based on craigslist, now fetches closer to $2000. I won’t tell you how many casino lounges you have to perform in to make that, but it’s a lot.

But I’m a bad financial example (sorry, Mom and Dad). My friend has a decently paying tech job that she’s been at for a few years. She was told that the rent in her shared single-family home in a non-central neighborhood would go from $3500 to $5600. With apartments on craigslist getting hundreds of replies, costing thousands, or charging $250 to live an hour away and sleep with the landlord, she may have to move to a different city. This would be a loss for her and the San Francisco (not to mention the landlord). Not only has she built a life here while being financially responsible, she also runs popular comedy shows and volunteers. Her roommates are similarly financially stable and do things that help make San Francisco an interesting and attractive place to live, but are now struggling to live there themselves. It would be a shame if San Francisco stopped being a diverse and vibrant place, but instead a San Francsico-style theme park where you can kind of experience what the culture was like while paying $6 for a (fair-trade) soda.

Everyone agrees action is needed. What’s been disappointing to me, though, that most of the ire I’ve seen has been focused on the most recent arrivals in the city – tech workers who are able to afford the increased rent.

They are an easy target (we’re dorks), but it’s an unfortunate approach for a number of reasons. One, because it ignores the root of the problem – an artificially constrained housing supply. Two, it at times takes the tone of a simple anti-immigration platform that undermines the tolerance that San Francisco supposedly embodies. And three, if it by some miracle stopgap measures succeed in curbing the growth of the city, it will be at the expense of an opportunity for San Francisco to become a greater than it already is.

First, why is housing construction artificially restrained? For starters, it often takes 10 years for new housing to be approved in San Francisco, and it can be arbitrarily altered by a diverse rainbow of public hearings and planning commissions, with the result being housing policy “based not so much on our city’s dire housing needs but on who can turn out the most people at a public hearing”. In addition to this slowing the supply to a trickle, it also increases the expenses developers take on to build new buildings, which will inevitably result in higher prices when/if the buildings are actually built. The situation is exacerbated by an elevated rate of vacant housing stock whether due to regulations or other reasons but a lack of physical supply is still the greatest long-term cause.

New construction is always something that people moan and clamor about and then forget about after they are actually built. In fact, these housing restrictions have been in place since the 1980s and originated with resistance to skyscrapers that now make up downtown on the grounds they’d spoil the view, though these are now completely accepted if not iconic parts of the skyline.

The good news here is that because the situation with housing permits is so subject to public opinion, if San Francisco activists were advocating for increased construction, they would be able to change things for the better. Unfortunately, they haven’t been. I think this is for two reasons – a deeply intellectual assumption that rich people must be the source of all problems, and because new transplants to the city are simply an easier target than the parts of their own community who are resisting the necessary changes.

So instead activists have focused energy on undermining the Google Bus on dubious environmental grounds (because obviously mass transit is terrible for the environment) and harassing its founder by ripping off Fight Club in order to try and make the city less hospitable for tech workers. Being anti-immigration is the last sentiment you’d expect from San Franciscians. Yet stereotyping the tech community, lamenting how they are taking over neighborhoods and how the “real” San Francisco is getting lost are all sentiments that seem at home in any anti-immigration campaign.

Ignored is are the facts that we as citizens have the freedom to move wherever we want and the basic hypocrisy that all San Francisco residents immigrated at some point, often over economically-rooted anti-immigrant sentiment. Also, this protectionism diminishes the very real contributions of the tech community to San Francisco – where it has lead to world-class technologies, and where many are interesting members of society who also bring money into the city that helps fund social programs and small businesses. Most cities bend over backwards to attract well-paying jobs and citizens who hold them for the money they bring into the community and public coffers. It’s surprising how many San Franciscans best case take them for granted and worst case treat them with suspicion.

Finally, resisting construction robs San Francisco of an opportunity to become greater than it is. San Francisco is a case study for why liberal capitalism can work. You have educated people who move to a city, create successful businesses, and are willing to pay high taxes and create a good social support network. Despite right-wing talk nationally of cutting taxes and social programs to boost the economy, SF has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. If it was allowed to grow, with fair and standardized requirements for mixed income or eco-friendly construction, it could be even more of an example for other cities to emulate. And if you think San Francisco is a great city – as I do – isn’t it selfish to keep it for yourself, rather than wanting other people to move there and enjoy it, simply because you moved there first?

Further, while the specter of inequality features prominently in much writing about the housing situation, a construction boom would bring with it lots of construction jobs that would benefit the working class and the businesses they support. If the goal is honestly to help the working class, and not just try to appropriate them as moral justification, a curb in construction that pushes rent prices higher for cosmetic purposes does much more harm than good. I know it’s shocking to think that people who dress up in lycra circus suits to block the Google Bus might not actually be that connected to the working class, but I have my suspicions.

It is not manifest destiny for San Francisco activists to complain about inequality and then when the city becomes increasingly gentrified anyway blame the powerful while ignoring the fact they could have prevented it. The truth is that construction is beneficial and vilification of tech workers isn’t. It’s my hope that sooner rather than later consensus becomes that allowing the city to grow is the best solution to the housing crunch, and that not only is gentrification reduced because of it, but hostility and inequality are as well.

And you know what? People can still make fun of tech workers. As people who grew up on math team, we’re used to it.

 
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Fun Times in Joburg

Posted by tobymuresianu on Feb 26, 2014 in Stories

In 2011 I performed at a club in Johannesburg for two weeks.

I was drinking with the staff after a show when Celine, a waitresses from Zimbabwe, asked if I wanted to go to a different bar. I wanted to see more of the city, so I agreed.

I thought a few of the staff were coming, but it was just the two of us. We squeezed into a minibus and I started to get a little nervous because I assumed it’d be close, but we were in the van for ~40 minutes and I had a flight the next morning.

A little past midnight we got off in Hillbrow, which Wikipedia notes is the subject of a BBC documentary on “the state of complete abandon and lawlessness in some parts of [Johannesburg]”. Celine told me “I want to show you how black people live,” which was something I was totally open to but probably would have picked a different time for.

She took me to her apartment to drop off my things. We went through a floor-to-ceiling metal turnstile and down crumbling hallways to a tiny studio apartment. There were insects crawling all over the walls and 5-6 people living in it, as well as a Playstation 3 and Ikea furniture.

I guess that’s globalization, but it’s still a little surprising to see a cockroach, a crucifix on the wall, and then the dresser you had sophomore year.

I introduced myself to the other folks – mostly in their 20s plus a child or two, all very nice – then dropped off my stuff and we left for the nightclub. As I put down my phone I noticed a text from the comedy club manager who heard where I was going and told me to be “extremely careful”. Celine said that as long as I stayed with her I’d be safe. She was about 5’3” but seemed pretty confident.

The club entrance was through another floor-to-ceiling turnstile set into what looked like an abandoned department store. People were crowding to be let in, but we skipped the line – I think Celine convinced them I was a celebrity based on being the only white person for miles and wearing the only slim-fit purple H&M shirt for miles after that.

Once we got in it was less full. The first floor looked like the hospital the guy wakes up in in 28 days later, so we went downstairs to a bare, open space with thumping music and maybe 150-200 people clustered around the front of the dance floor.

As I waded through the crowd, to say I stood out would be an understatement – heads turned, drunks reached out and touched my face, and I slapped away hands going through my pockets. We finally got to the VIP area, which was really the DJ booth fenced off with a welded screen door.

Inside I met the DJ (from the Philippines) and had a beer while hanging out with the waitress, producer and one or two other girls. They asked me to dance and insisted I’d be good over my protests that I wasn’t. As soon as I started, though, they stopped and stared at me in confusion and began trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, which was amazing before that moment I didn’t think it would be possible to feel more conscious of my whiteness.

I was in the middle of failing my third dance lesson when we heard a bottle smash, then another, and yelling. A few fights had broken out, but most people just carried on dancing like nothing had happened. I checked my watch; it was 3am. I told her I had to go to catch my flight.

We went back to her building to get my stuff, two very large, rough-looking guys confronted us. Celine argued with them heatedly for several minutes. I stood there, nervous but numb, feeling like I was flipping to the appropriate page in a Choose Your Own Adventure novel with no idea what my fate would be. After a few minutes she motioned me to come with her through the turnstile. As we walked through she rolled her eyes, sighing “Pff, those guys…they just want to rob *everybody*”.

I grabbed my stuff from the apartment, and we got into a cab, where she negotiated a fare of about a third of the price of any cab I’d taken in South Africa to that point. Two hours later I was asleep on a plane.

 
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The High School Party Bathroom Story

Posted by tobymuresianu on Feb 19, 2014 in Stories

A few kind people on facebook said they liked my cab stories and wanted more. I don’t have any more, but as the next best thing here’s an embarrassing story from high school, which remedies the situation of my previous ones making me seem like the good guy.

The first real high school party I went to was at my friend Rob’s house (not his real name, I’m still not sure if he knows what happened or not).

I got there early and was talking with friends when I realized I had to – and there’s no polite way to say this, but we’re all adults with bodies and have been there – take a big dump. But I was afraid of stinking up the joint or having classmates queued up down the hall, so I didn’t use the main bathroom. I knew, cleverly, that Rob’s parents had a bathroom in their master bedroom and went for that one.

I did my business, but when I went to flush, it didn’t. It went halfway down the pipe, then stopped and the water rose.

I looked for a plunger, but there wasn’t one. I knew there was one downstairs, but I did not at all want to have to walk past my new high school classmates with it in hand, an undeniable scepter of shame. I weighed my options.

Sometimes when a toilet clogs, you know you earned it. But sometimes you just haven’t pulled the lever confidently enough to establish dominance. Hoping that was the case, I pressed the button again with authority.

At this point in my life I didn’t realize a toilet *could* overflow; I assumed there was some kind of fail-safe mechanism. As the water began to rise towards the lip and reality hit home, everything went into slow motion.

My eyes lit onto a tupperware container used for storing makeup. I dumped it onto the ground and started frantically baling water from the toilet to the sink. Too little, too late; the water rose over the lip and spilled onto the floor like a public fountain built to commemorate my failure.

This is also probably the time to note Rob’s parents bathroom is the only one in the western hemisphere with shag carpeting. Possibly the only one in history outside Liberace’s mansion or Gaddaffi’s Libya.

Fortunately, the water was all “fresh” water from the pipes (“fresh” being a very relative term). Either way, by the time it stopped the carpeting was soaked. I found a 36-pack of toilet paper in the closet and used half of it, hand soap and a hair dryer to sponge-dry the carpet over the next 60-90 minutes.

After finishing the toilet was still clogged, because there is no justice in the world. I gritted my teeth and tried to sneak downstairs. My friends immediately saw me and asked me where I disappeared to. Dodging the question, I hurriedly got the plunger and hustled upstairs to a chorus of jeers from the now-packed party.

What I did next was not mention it to anyone for 16 years.

 
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My Weirdest Uber Fare

Posted by tobymuresianu on Feb 19, 2014 in Stories

I occasionally drive for Uber in Los Angeles. If you’re not familiar, it’s a service that allows people to use their cars as inexpensive cabs (also, ask me for a referral).

I posted the story of my weirdest ride on facebook and it got a good response, so thought I would share it here as well.

The request came around midnight on a Monday. I pulled up outside a bar and three people – a hipster girl, a black hipster, and a tough looking guy – piled in, blurting out that some people had stolen the tough guy’s phone. They were following it through an app and would give me cash on top of the fare to track them down.

I didn’t have much experience as a bounty hunter but it seemed interesting and I started the ride, before immediately thinking of the more practical questions associated with tracking down criminals.

Had they called the police? Yes, they’d been blown off and told they ‘could file a case in the morning’.
Had they tried negotiating? Yes, some guy with an accent answered their call, but then hung up and didn’t answer again.
Were these actual criminals who might have guns? They were vague on this question when we converged on the dot about a mile away.

The street was deserted except for a guy running with a duffel bag while wearing a beat-up letterman-style jacket and jeans. He happened to be black. A collective wave of nausea swept the car when we realized what was about to happen.

“I feel like this is kind of racist, but…” said the girl.
Awkward “Ums” and “Ahs” from the other two.
“Pull up” said Tough Guy, rolling down his window. I pulled up beside the running man and he stopped.

“Do you have my phone?” asked Tough Guy.
“What?” the running guy replied in a thick African accent.
“You have my iPhone.”
“I do not know what you are talking about! Why are you accusing me? Is it because I am black?”

Tough Guy started getting out of the car. The black hipster leaned out of the window and started saying “Not a black thing man. Not a black thing!” probably seven times.

The African guy got increasingly angry, going through his pockets.

“I do not have your phone, look! This is my phone, it is a blackberry. You want to search me? GO ahead!”

He took off his jacket and angrily shoved it at Tough Guy, who didn’t take it. He started to unzip his duffel but didn’t finish as they argued.

The hipster girl had mentioned earlier there was a button in the app that caused it to beep loudly when pressed.

“Press the noise button,” I told her. She pressed it. Nothing happened. She called the phone. Nothing happened.

“He doesn’t have it. Let’s go!” She yelled to Tough Guy. He was still glaring at the African guy. There was palpable tension in the air as everyone waited to see if they would fight.

“Let’s go!” She yelled again. Tough Guy didn’t react. I let the car roll forward. He got back in the car and I drove off.

“The dot’s moving!” the girl said. “It’s up here, on the right!”

I stopped a half mile or so ahead, at the entrance to a community college parking lot where the week beforehand there had been a shooting over a drug deal. I told them I wasn’t going in there. They started to insist, citing the fact that I’d be paid. I was weighing my expected Uber wages against the cost of a lawyer/ambulance when in my rear-view I noticed the African guy running towards us, with a new, muscle-bound guy. I peeled out.

They broke into discussion of various theories for what was going on when the girl said the dot was at a 7-11 up ahead; we agreed this would be the last stop. I pulled into the lot. They went through the store looking to see if they recognized anyone or trying to suss out whether people there knew anything. I watched the pantomime through the glass window as a strangers got irate and defensive.

Two cops pulled up for coffee and the girl explained the situation. “Nah, those apps only give you a perimeter.” one said. “We don’t track those things down, you need a detective. You can file a case in the morning. Or we’ll be around and if you can get them to make an exchange, call 911 and we’ll respond.”

The thieves were still not picking up the phone. The girl had me drive to one more place the dot moved to, a block away, a residential complex. I told them I was done and would drive them home. The dot started moving again. I don’t know why it never occurred to anyone that the app could just be a piece of garbage and completely inaccurate (it wasn’t the built-in Apple one).

I drove them home. They thanked me profusely but didn’t pay me extra. The final bill was like ~$27 for 35 minutes which I think is way less than Starsky or Hutch earned per hour, even adjusted for inflation.

I didn’t really think about it more until two days later I surmised from the rating system that they rated me 3 stars, below average.

If I ever see them again, *I* am going to steal their phone. And tie it to a pigeon.

 
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The Duck Dynasty Succession Crisis

Posted by tobymuresianu on Dec 22, 2013 in Politics, Thoughts

Phil Robertson’s comments were ignorant and his sermons were hateful. But causing his show to be cancelled does more harm than good. The best option would be for Robertson to go on TV with people from the groups he insulted – and have them actually explain their opinions. Here’s why.

(First, read the interview if you haven’t already. It’s very surprising how many people took the time to express their opinion online who have never read the original article. I think part of the reason we are so polarized is because we are getting our news from opinion pieces based on opinion pieces instead of reading the original story and drawing our own conclusions.)

Two things surprised me in the interview:

1. The original remarks about vaginas and anuses – which seem like moronic but typical shock jock stuff – are like the third most offensive thing in the article. The remarks implying black people were happier before civil rights and implying that Japanese and Muslims started wars because they didn’t believe in Christ are much worse. I think the fact they only “surfaced” a few days after the original furor points to how many people didn’t read the original piece.

2. The remarks are a small percentage of the article. Most of it, written from the perspective of the author, an NYC hipster type – portrays Phil in a positive light, mentioning his work helping quit drugs, adopting a biracial child and promoting adoption. Some conservatives have described the piece as a “hit job” but it isn’t, at all. On the other hand, it explains why some people like him so much. It also raises the questions of when we should be able to look past crazy religious and political beliefs when they don’t affect our relationship with someone, and whether it’s appropriate to treat him as a simple villain.

That said, the sermons that have come to light are more odious than anything that’s said in the article.

So, if he’s said awful things, why shouldn’t he be kicked off his show as a consequence?

First, it’s not a first amendment issue, legally speaking. I do think, though, that “free speech” is a cultural value that we have and is worth preserving. It’s somewhat ironic that for all the past worry about government censorship, we are now censoring ourselves – private party retaliation and outrage is the biggest impediment to speaking one’s beliefs. And while I think there’s a difference between expressing your every day beliefs and those that are hateful when you have a public role, the fact that his beliefs are not outside the norm for many people – in addition to being troubling on its face – makes reprisal seem more like censorship. Is it okay to suspend someone for repeating, when asked, a belief that a sizable portion of the US population believes?

But free speech aside, the larger reason he shouldn’t remain suspended is that no goals are accomplished by this, beyond a fleeting sense of justice being served. If the reason we don’t want public figures espousing hateful views is that they will spread, canceling the show and making him a martyr for his beliefs doesn’t stop it. Addressing the substance of his remarks is the best way to.

After all, the consequences of the show being cancelled (or suspending Phil indefinitely, which will lead to the show being cancelled) will be:

1) Right wingers will continue to feel persecuted, and that there is a double standard for liberal and conservative “free speech” in America. I don’t think Phil Robertson is the best example for this, but I do think there’s a grain of truth in other cases, with Alec Baldwin, Dan Savage and others getting passes right-wingers don’t get.

2) Duck Dynasty will be picked up by another network – it’s already had offers – and possibly become more conservative/political than before.

3) People who love Duck Dynasty – and there are a lot of them – will continue to be angry at the show they love being cancelled. It’s easy to write this off if you’re liberal, since liberals don’t watch or care about the show. But a lot of people really, really do. Imagine if Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad had said the same thing Phil did before its last season. Would liberals be as quick to write the show off? Or would they remember that there are all kinds of horrendous people in Hollywood – from Walt Disney to Jenny McCarthy to Tom Cruise – where people have largely looked the other way?

If the goal is to stop prejudice and hatred towards homosexuals and minorities, the best way isn’t to have them blamed for taking away something that people love. The best way is to show that they are regular, decent, reasonable people – to Duck Dynasty viewers, not so different from the Phil. It’s also important to address Phil’s idiotic opinions head on – for example, by mentioning that rather than black people “not singing the blues” before civil rights, they invented the blues. And that far from his assertions that Christian countries did not start wars, obscure historical events like World War 1, the American Civil War, the American Revolution, the Spanish-American War, and the Crusades all happened.

And no, I don’t think that Phil will repent and change his mind. But some viewers might change theirs – or at least harbor less antipathy towards liberals/gays/minorities if they understand their point of view, see them being willing to talk, and see Phil shaking hands with them.

Sure, it’s not perfect, and there are ways it could go wrong. But I think it’s the best option, and in any case it’s better to do the right thing and risk it being wrong than to not take the chance at all.

 
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Which arguments about Healthcare.gov are wrong

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 25, 2013 in Politics, Tech, Thoughts

For the record, as an engineer with (an unfortunate amount of) experience with delayed software projects:

Using a “tech surge” to fix the problems with HealthCare.gov is a terrible idea, and every time I read about them “shipping some of the best and brightest minds” to Washington to fix these problems I cringe.

The more significant reason it’s a terrible idea is that you can’t solve software problems by adding more people or money. This is most famously illustrated by tech industry gospel The Mythical Man Month – a book describing the phenomenon of how adding people to a delayed project makes it more delayed.

Basically, what ends up happening is that you pull programmers who are building the product off and have them “bring up to speed” people that have just been brought in. They spend time training them, and then fixing the problems that the new people create, rather than working on the actual delayed product. The more people you add, the more overhead, and the less efficiently the project goes.

That said – I’m sure the experts brought in to fix the problem are aware of this phenomenon – and hopefully will be able to work around it, or maybe it’s all a bunch of hoopla to buy the developers time. At the end of the day – this product is just a website. It should not take that long to build. Obviously there’s important back-end stuff happening, but apparently that’s been functioning okay as the state exchanges have been using it.

You’ll hear excuses like “tech projects are often delayed” and “many websites have glitches” or “the traffic was more than what was estimated.” These are all ridiculous. Yes, tech projects are often delayed and time costs poorly estimated. However, this project is cost $170 million. $170 million. For a website. A website. $170 million. And Sebelius told the Wall Street Journal that ideally they should have had five years to work on the website. If every website took five years and $170 million to develop, there would be like three of them. No, designing an enterprise-class website is not easy, but the truth his that thousands of enterprises do more complicated things every day and manage to pull it off. As did the 14 states that managed to build their exchanges correctly.

People are saying Sebilius should be fired. I don’t know how responsible she is personally or not. It’s so easy to point fingers and I don’t think you should fire people just for vengeance.

I can’t say what the particular causes are – people are citing things like late requirement changes, which are the bane of many a software engineer, but in a well managed project should be prevented from happening.

But at the end of the day people are responsible for this. Anyone who didn’t raise alarm bells at a $170 million price-tag for developing a website should be fired, twice if possible. Obama and Sebilius both should have been told, if they weren’t, about the current status and risk associated with the project before launch and given the chance to delay it; and if they weren’t, whoever was responsible for not telling them should be held responsible. People who are bad at their jobs should not be given the chance to do new ones. I want to say that CGI Federal should not get more government contracts, but regardless after this debacle I’m not sure government agencies will be lining up to get some of that sweet HealthCare.gov magic.

Anyway, just wanted to share some thoughts I had – I had a little time to kill while I was trying to buy health insurance.

 
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Start Me Up

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 18, 2013 in Politics, Thoughts

So the government shutdown is over, and it’s a relief that the two parties were able to finally come together and agree to do it again in three months. Or maybe not. Maybe they have finally learned that there are limits to what unyielding antagonism can accomplish in a democracy. Or maybe not. Sometimes I wonder if Obama’s alarm clock plays “I got you babe” like in Groundhog Day.

So much has been said about the shutdown and I don’t want to beat a dead horse. I’d just like to express two thoughts:

1. The Republican Party should be two parties. They essentially are (how often does part of one party use the name of a different party to describe itself?) as the two wings represent very different sets of values. It would be great if the debt ceiling debacle yielded a split.

As has been widely reported, one core problem Congress has built for itself is that many of the districts are safe – gerrymandered so that one party has a safe majority, and threats to the incumbent come from within their own party in the primary system, causing the extreme wing to have disproportionate influence. But the will to correct gerrymandered districts hasn’t come from the people in power who drew them that way.

If the Tea Party and Republican party were separate, it could make these existing districts competitive again by allowing moderate Republicans to draw votes from either side in a general election, rather than having to draw them only from one side of their party in a primary. This would benefit democracy in these areas and encourage participation amongst voters who aren’t Republican and currently have no real voice in choosing the representatives of their gerrymandered districts.

2. If no split happens, hopefully this is where the Tea Party jumps the shark (Nominations for the moment? Green Eggs and Ham?). I used to feel like I could at least somewhat where they were coming from from a libertarian perspective even if I didn’t agree with them. But they’re so myopic and melodramatic that their actions aren’t even in line with the values they bluster for days about not compromising.

They hate inefficient government and wasteful spending, so they shut the government down and supported continuing to pay the workers. They believe that the will of the people is being abridged, so they address it by having their small minority dictate the agenda for the vast majority of Americans who voted for non-Tea-Party candidates. Even their core belief in free markets is suspect. To borrow a tweet from Josh Barro: “A conservative is someone who believes all markets are efficient except the bond market.” While it’s a stretch to say conservatives, tea partiers vocally advocate a view that deifies markets and vilifies people in government who think they know better than markets. Yet US Government Bonds have been priced by markets as the safest investment you can make, indicating markets themselves don’t see reason to be concerned about government taking on the debt that Tea Partiers obsess over. So it’s fairly ironic that the Tea Party people in government resolve this conflict by deciding they know better than the markets.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Go back to enjoying your national monuments.

 
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Staying Hungary

Posted by tobymuresianu on Aug 2, 2013 in Travel

Sometimes when I am working in Europe, I get the chance to perform someplace where people don’t speak English. It’s better than it sounds. English is a close second to Love as the universal language, and there’s enough expats to fill a bar anywhere. This time I ended up doing a night in Budapest, Hungary.

Our first stop was the flat we were staying, which had been booked over an apartment share website (HungAirBnb?). I’d been fretting in my mind whether some material I’d written about the Huns would be relevant, so when the person showing us the apartment’s name was Attila I sighed in relief.

It turns out Hungarians are still proud of the Huns, though most of Europe remembers them for the whole massacring villagers thing, and genetic tests indicate modern Hungarians are less descended from the huns than from those villagers. It’s sort of similar to the relationship Romania has with the Romans – essentially forming your national identity via Stockholm Syndrome.

Attila the Hungarian seemed nice enough – he didn’t trample us under a war horse or anything – though he did try to convince the promoter that the two bedroom apartment the promoter had booked only included the use of one bedroom with two beds on it unless we paid extra. Eventually the promoter convinced him otherwise. Perhaps their time honored practice of extorting tribute has faded into a more gentle haggling.

In any case, the apartment was built during communist times, or at least I hope nobody was paid for making it. Some of the typical Eastern Bloc User Friendliness:

* A shower curtain that curved around a few feet in front of the shower, presumably to hide the view of all the water on the floor.

* A showerhead that did not reach the shower head holder combined with a water heater that didn’t work, so showering was done by holding a showerhead blasting cold water inches from your skin. Though this could have been by design in order to conserve water, or keep it off the floor after they realized where they’d put the shower curtain.

So close, yet so far

* In yet another effort to conserve water, the toilet did not have a bowl full of water and is shaped somewhat like a waterfall. Basically, the way it works is (WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES AHEAD) your turds drop down onto a flat piece of plastic, where they sit as though on an examination table, instantly filling the adjacent rooms with the unmistakable odor of dry feces. After finishing your business and attempting to flush, a pitiful sound emerges from the device and you are left to stare at your handiwork as it lies like a beached whale with water gently lapping by it like the receding tide. You are then forced to flush dozens of times until the forces of erosion eventually carry the log down the hole like the worlds most disgusting water slide, or use the cleaning brush to speed nature along. Is this too gross for a blog? It was too gross for my life, but it still happened.

The only other noteworthy aspect to the apartment was that like many buildings in Budapest, it was built around a courtyard, though there was only cement at the bottom. It was hard not to imagine people being held over the edge and interrogated Goodfellas-style.

Now do we get to use both bedrooms in the apartment?

After dropping our bags, I headed into town with the opening comedian, Neil Morgan, an Irishman who lives in Brno, Czech Republic. One of the interesting parts of Euro integration is that in addition to Polish people moving to Britain, a lot of Irish and English have moved to places like Brno where multinational tech companies have set up offices and call centers, so that customers in Britain think they are getting local phone support.

Budapest has many attractions, including the largest Synagogue outside of New York:

1% of the Budapest Synagogue

Where to get the chosen information

As well as statues of people on razor scooters being ridden by kids like razor scooters:

Lenin’s first razor scooter

and, of course, Mary Poppins:

Apparently the umbrella took her here.

Budapest has a very familiar, cinematic feel, and for good reason – it has been filmed more than any other city, though typically as a “stand-in” city for others: Paris, Rome, etc. As you walk through the boulevards you almost expect to see flashy car-chases screeching through them, or hear those bank alarms and European police sirens go off right before Jason Statham knocks over your fruit stand. No such luck on our trip, though.

On a previous tour of central Europe, I’d met Dave Thompson, a wonderful British comedian who played Tinky Winky on the Teletubbies and wrote a book called “The Sex Life of a Comedian,” presumably because it was a less creepy title than “The Sex Life of a Teletubby.” He had settled in Budapest because he claimed that Hungarian women were the most beautiful in the world. While usually this is just local pride in this case I couldn’t help but notice (I’m not made of stone) that women were consistently extremely beautiful; I would place it as city with the fifth most beautiful women I’ve seen, after New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and if you are a girl, whatever city you live in (so smooth).

Even more than the architecture or the women, though, I found myself most attracted to the beauty of the exchange rates (I am made of Jew). An overstuffed falafel sandwich will run you the equivalent of $2 including tax. On the other hand, all the food I had was pretty bad, but that may be more a result of me frequenting $2 kebab places than anything.

After about two hours of walking around, it was time for the show. In the upstairs showroom, we played to a mostly full crowd of about 50 people; summers tend to dent comedy turnouts in any language. Unlike other shows I’ve done in Europe, they were mostly locals, with a few expats and a couple Romanians who came out because they recognized my name as Romanian. Someday I hope people will recognize my name as my name rather than simply belonging to my ethnicity, but since it’s more common for people to recognize my name as simply a jumble of vowels that they have no idea how to pronounce I’ll take whatever I can get.

The show was very fun, and unusual in that there was a guest set before my performance by an opera singer, who ended up being a bit late to the show as he had just won a chess tournament down the road. It was also the first time I shared the stage with someone’s puppy who wandered across the stage; her lack of stage fright at such a young age was pretty remarkable and I see stardom in her future. It was the happiest I’ve ever been to have someone come up on stage, and it didn’t distract from the show at all; if YouTube has taught us anything, it’s that people pay more attention to anything there are puppies involved in.

After the show, we went out to a “ruin pub”, a phenomenon unique to Budapest. After the fall of the socialist state, there were a bunch of buildings with courtyards that were derelict and owned by the state. The fall of the socialism coinciding with strong demand for alcohol, a few entrepreneurs starting putting bars in abandoned courtyards, graffitiing them up, and staying one step ahead of the police until they made enough money to buy the buildings outright. Tragically, after feeling like very saavy authentic tourists it turned out we were in a faux-ruin-pub just built to look like one – the Hungarian club equivalent of buying pre-distressed jeans. You can’t win em all, but on the plus side, their bathroom was light years better than I (shudder to) imagine authentic ones would be.

After many shots of Palinka (Hungary’s local hard liquor or cough syrup, I wasn’t sure) it was time to pass out in our pleasantly separate bedrooms, though only after setting our alarms for a horribly early hour to take the train to Neil’s adopted hometown of Brno. Would have liked to spend more time in Budapest and have my fingers crossed I’ll return there to do a show (or open for an opera singer) soon.

 
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Caring is not a zero-sum game

Posted by tobymuresianu on Apr 16, 2013 in Politics, Thoughts

It’s nice how people come together and show support on social networks in the wake of a tragedy like the one that happened in Boston. When your faith in the world is shaken, it is nice to see a lot of people post messages of hope and positivity. It’s easy to say it’s just a Facebook message, but it does have an emotional impact.

There were also a few people who posted messages that pointed out that there were tragedies going on all over the world, and that Boston’s wasn’t special. Examples:

 

“oh my god! horrible tragedy today. my thoughts go out to the 25,000 people who died of starvation around the world.”

“This really isn’t to cause shit, what happened in Boston is terrible, but would just like to put things in perspective. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/middle-east-live/2013/apr/15/syria-conflict-shelling-in-damascus-suburbs-live-updates”

“Americans are so vain. The people in Boston now might know what it’s like to live in Iraq, or Niger or any other unprivileged place…”

 

If you didn’t see anyone who posted something like this, congratulations, you have better friends than I do.

But it would be disingenuous to write it off; I’ll admit I have instinctively thought it about other tragedies with small casualty figures. When you are used to seeing news articles like “30 dead, 200 injured in Peshawar” is it just egotism that makes us care so much about 3 people dying and 100 or so being injured in one of our cities?

I think there’s a few reasons why it’s not.

First, I think it’s natural to feel more intensely about places to which you have a connection – whether having visited, lived there, studied there, or have friends or relatives living there – and Boston is a city many people have such a connection to. Is it analytically wrong to care more about things you are closer to? Maybe, but you also have more ability to help them, and humans are emotional beings. We feel worse about our friends dying than about two strangers dying half a world away – and that’s true of all people whether they live in the US, Canada or Peshawar.

Second, caring is not a zero sum game. We can care about Boston and care about the third world as well, and despite the stereotypes, many Americans do. it’s particularly silly to imply otherwise when the event in question was a marathon that many people run for charity, which draws participants from all over the world, and is held in Boston – one of the most educated and liberal (if that matters to you) cities anywhere.

Another reason we take Boston more personally because it is more of an attack on us personally. Whoever did it wanted to target people simply because they were there. If I’d been standing next to that garbage can (as I may have many times, having grown up there) they would have been just as happy to have killed me – forgive me if I find that particularly disturbing. I don’t know if there were bombs going off in their neighborhoods whether these posters would be strolling around saying “well, this is nothing compared to the situation in the Central African Republic,” but I suspect not.

Nobody is saying that violence in the third world is less terrible than violence here. All I’m saying is that the reason we are more upset about it right now is completely normal and to imply that it’s due to being egotistical or use it to confirm your pre-existing anti-Americanism is ridiculous.

And what are those posters complaining about exactly? Are they angry that the Boston story is getting front page coverage rather than other conflicts? If so, I’d like to remind them that the Syrian conflict is 2 years old, and ask what paper have they been looking at where it has not consistently been on the front page since then — as well as what world it was published in.

Are they angry that people are posting messages of support on Facebook for Boston rather than the third world today? It’s worth noting that a) they’re not generally posting daily messages of support for the third world, either and b) when events in Syria, Iraq, etc. first happened, many of the same people posting about Boston now were posting messages of support for them, too.

What particularly irks me is how often people who post this stuff act like they are big thinkers for it. They aren’t being thoughtful. They are using knee-jerk anti-Americanism as a substitute for intellectualism, and trying to show off that they read the news as though nobody else possibly could. I don’t mean to start anything. I’d just like to, you know, put things in perspective.

 
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Egypt moves to arrest its Jon Stewart

Posted by tobymuresianu on Mar 30, 2013 in Clips, Travel

The government of Mohamed Morsi is moving to arrest one of its prominent critics – Bassem Youssef, a former doctor and now television personality who models his show after the Daily Show, which you may have seen him on.

Al Jazeera reports:

Youssef said he would hand himself over on Sunday, “unless they kindly send a police van today and save me the transportation hassle”

As a (sometimes) political comedian, I wish I had those kind of guts. It’s a reminder that as much as we as Americans revere people like Lenny Bruce, there are still comedians making sacrifices as great or greater than him today.

While Youssef obviously performs in Arabic, I was able to find a subtitled version of his show. While watching it, you notice a few things:

        • Even in translation it’s surprisingly funny (though of course there’s some Egyptian references you may not get)
        • You feel much more of connection to Egyptians than by reading banal news reports, and
        • He really does look like John Stewart.

 

 

Hopefully through this ordeal he’s able to draw more attention to the ridiculousness of those in power.

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